Chapter 6 - Lethality and Casualties
Beginning in 1860 the pace of weapons development increased enormously as the Industrial Revolution produced one technological advance upon another. Among the most important consequences of the factory system, mass production, and machine manufacture was the great reduction in time required between new ideas and the manufacture of production prototypes. New concepts were quickly reduced to drawings, then to models, then prototypes, and finally to full-scale implementation within very short periods of time. The wide-spread introduction of technical journals quickened the time it took for innovations in one discipline to have an impact in another related field. The result was a rapid increase in information transfer. The overall consequence of these circumstances was the rapid application of new weapons and other technologies of war to the battlefield at a pace never seen before in history with the corresponding result that weapons became more lethal than ever.
Lethality in war is always, however, the sum total of a number of factors that go quite beyond the inherent death-dealing capabilities of a military technology. For example, before a new weapon can reach its killing potential, military commanders have to discover new methods of fighting in order to bring the new weapon to bear in a manner that maximizes its killing potential. Once the killing power is exposed for all to see, however, one's opponent adopts passive and active means for limiting the most deadly effects of the weapon. This, in turn, requires new changes in tactics and combat formations in an attempt to preserve the killing power of the new technology. Inevitably, the result is a dynamic balance of behavior and technology that usually results in a state of affairs where the killing power of the new weapon remains somewhat higher than the weapon it replaced, but often not greatly so. It cannot be stressed too strongly in calculating the killing power of weaponry that any failure to adapt either weapons or tactics to new circumstances can be catastrophic. Thus, the failure of the World War I armies to alter their battle tactics in light of the machine gun's enormous rates of fire resulted in horrendous casualties in the early days of the war. The similar refusal of British commanders at the Somme to change their practice of massed infantry attacks against entrenched positions resulted in 54,000 men being killed or wounded in less than 10 hours. Similarly, Saddam Hussein's insistence in the Gulf War of meeting American firepower with the same defensive tactics he had employed in the Iran-Iraq war resulted in the destruction of large numbers of soldiers in less than 100 hours of fighting.
T.N. Dupuy has calculated the effects of weapons as their killing power is affected by changes in a number of objective factors such as rates of fire, number of potential targets per strike, relative incapacitating effect, effective range, muzzle velocity, reliability, battlefield mobility, radius of action, and vulnerability in order to calculate what he calls a Theoretical Lethality Index for each weapon that specifies its lethality power. But such objective factors, when calculated against the single variable of dispersion, change radically in their ability to produce casualties under actual battlefield conditions. The result is that, when measured over time, the measurable casualty effects of modern weapons paradoxically result in far less casualties when measured against the weapons of the past.
Dupuy notes that when measured against the nongunpowder weapons of antiquity and the Middle Ages, modern weapons, excluding nuclear weapons of course, have increased in lethality by a factor of 2,000. But while lethality has increased by a factor of 2,000, the dispersion of forces on the battlefield made possible by mechanization and the ability of fewer soldiers to deliver exponentially more firepower has increased by a factor of 4,000! The result, as Figure 1 demonstrates, has been that wars since 1865 have killed fewer soldiers as a percentage of the deployed combat force than was the case in previous wars. Except for the Napoleonic wars which utilized the tactical field formation of the packed marching column, every war since 1600 (Table 1) has resulted in fewer and fewer casualties as a percentage of the committed forces for both the victor and defeated.
The impact of the dispersion of forces on this equation is evident from the data in Table 2. It is clear that as weapons became more and more destructive, armies reacted by adjusting their tactics to increase their dispersion of forces so as to minimize the targets provided to the new weapons. Again, the overall result has been a decline in battle casualties even as the lethality of weapons increased.
Some historical examples help clarify the point. Until the Napoleonic wars the proportion of casualties, killed and wounded, to total effective forces under the system of linear tactics had steadily declined from 15 percent for the victors to 30 percent for the losers in battle during the Thirty Years War to about 9 and 16 percent respectively during the wars of the French Revolution. Napoleon's use of column tactics forced him to reduce the dispersion of forces in the face of increased killing power of musketry and artillery. The result was an increase in Napoleon's casualty rates to 15 and 20 percent. By 1848, dispersion had once again become the basis of tactics and increased with each war over the next 100 years. The result was a decline in the number of soldiers killed per 1,000 per year. In the Mexican War, U.S. forces lost 9.9 soldiers per 1,000 per annum. For the Spanish-American War the corresponding figure was 1.9, for the Philippine Insurrection it was 2.2, for World War I it was 12.0, and for World War II it was 9.0. Only during the Civil War, which saw many battles in which massed formations were thrown against strong defensive positions (a violation of dispersion) did the rates of the North, 21.3, and the South, 23.0, again begin to approach those of the Napoleonic period. Thus, barring incredible tactical stupidity, as lethal as modern weaponry is and as intense as modern non-nuclear conventional wars are, they generally produce less casualties per day of exposure than the weapons and wars of the past. Even in the Gulf War of 1991 which saw a force of almost 400,000 hammered by unlimited conventional airpower for a month and attacked by a large modern mobile armor force with an enormous technological advantage in weaponry, the estimated casualty figure for Iraqi forces equals approximately only 7.1 percent.
Adamson's study of casualty rates from antiquity to Korea reaches the same conclusion with respect to mortality rates. Given that weapons changed little from the times of antiquity through the period of the Middle Ages, it might be somewhat safely assumed that the data provided for the Greek and Roman periods were roughly similar to that of the later periods of antiquity prior to the advent of gunpowder weapons. Table 3 presents the mortality data for various wars at different periods of history with the lethality of weapons factored in along the time dimension. The results of the data demonstrate that although weapons became more and more lethal with each war, the mortality rates for each war tended to decline with the highest found during wars of antiquity and the lowest reflected in modern wars. Once again the conclusion is that adjustments in tactics, mobility, and dispersion have by and large offset the increased killing power of modern weaponry.